This will be one of the most difficult posts I will ever write and probably the longest. It is about such a highly charged, emotional topic that is in our face every night, and I don’t want to say the wrong thing. As I read and hear so many people weighing in on the George Floyd murder, the protests that followed it, and police brutality issues around our nation, I keep struggling to come up with my own take on it all.
The problem is I am so afraid I will do it wrong. I am so afraid I will anger people by saying something that I shouldn’t, even though I didn’t know it was something that shouldn’t be said or said in the way I say it. I don’t want to be insensitive to others’ feelings and situations.
I have written and spoken a few times before about my fear of ever making someone mad. This has never had anything to do with any racially charged situation. It’s just my own “wanting to please everyone” nature and my overly warped feeling of wanting everyone to like me.
Because of those two things, I rarely hit on controversial topics, and when I do, I don’t usually take a strong stance on them one way or another. I don’t like to create conflict and controversy.
Last year, though, I started writing a bit more of my own opinions on some more controversial topics. My FB post on “Participation Trophies” is one where I stepped out of my comfort zone a bit, and I had a larger number of comments and shares on that post than most of my other posts. While I understand that the place for me to make an impact is probably in the more controversial spaces, it’s hard for me to do that.
It’s time to do it again, though, but I am more hesitant this time. I am a 59-year-old, white, American male. I fall into a stereotype, and it’s a stereotype I don’t like all that much lately. In fact, I don’t like most stereotypes.
I used to teach my students and athletes to beware of stereotypes. When you stereotype, you take the features of a certain type of group, and you apply those characteristics to everyone who falls into that category. You are not treating them as individuals who happen to have similar traits to others. You are saying, “Because you have these characteristics, you are this certain way because so many others who have those characteristics are that way.”
But that’s not fair. Just because I’m a 59-year-old, white, American male, I should not be thought of in some generic way, as if I and every other 59-year-old, white, American male are all the same. It’s not fair to me and every other 59-year-old, white, American male.
Well the same holds true for EVERY OTHER TYPE OF PERSON you could group someone into. Nobody deserves that. Yet it happens all the time. Why is that?
The Comfort of Ignorance
The main reason is it’s just easier to assume you know someone based on some generic characteristics. You don’t have to get to know them individually. You don’t need to take the time to listen to their backstory and find out who they really are. It’s just easier to fit them into a group that you already know a bit about. Your ignorance is a comfort because you don’t have to work to get to know them individually.
It’s also more comfortable to not have your ideas about certain groups be challenged. If some people feel that all young, black males are thugs and criminals, it’s just easier if they don’t think about the millions of young, black males who are out busting their butts every day to become better students, co-workers, citizens, brothers, boyfriends, husbands, dads, people. It’s easier for them to just carry the stereotype and not think of each of them individually.
Do you know how hard it was for me to write that last paragraph – especially the second sentence? Putting the words “young, black males” and “thugs and criminals” in the same sentence was so hard for me to do. I don’t want people to think that I think that way. I don’t want people to think that I am racist or that I stereotype. So I avoid those types of sentences.
But we have to put those things out there if we are going to fix these problems in our society. And it’s about time we fix these problems in our society.
“They’re Different Than Me”
I was born in 1960 in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. I remember drinking fountains segregated as “White” and “Colored.” I was so young I had no idea why they were that way, but it embedded in my mind that those people were “different” than me. For some reason, they couldn’t have the same water that I had.
Fortunately, by the time I was probably 6 or 7 years old, those fountains were gone, at least where I lived. But the mark they made on me wasn’t. Black people were different than me, and that’s all there was to it.
Of course, black people are different than me in some ways. They are darker skinned than me. But ultimately, that should be the ONLY difference between us. Yet, I learned as I continued to grow up that their interests, styles, music, culture, etc. were different than much of the way I was growing up.
Yet, truth be told, for a lot of it, I liked their stuff better. I liked their clothes more. I liked their sports more. I liked their music more. I grew up on soul and funk music as my absolute favorite. I loved their music so much, I wanted to be the first white Temptation! (Young people, check out The Temptations on YouTube to see what I’m talking about.)
I played basketball, and the black, smooth, playground style of basketball became my absolute favorite. First, it was Walt “Clyde” Frazier. He was the ultimate in cool, and his book Rockin’ Steady became a bit of a guide on life for me. Then in my sophomore year of high school, I found my new hero: Julius “Dr. J” Erving. I loved everything about him, and I wanted to be just like him. I had straight red hair, but I wanted a big, black, afro. I wanted to jump like him, palm a ball like him, dunk like him, carry myself with the style, class, and grace he did. Unfortunately, I struggled mightily to come close to doing any of those things, but I still wanted to be “The Doc.”
We had maybe 10 black kids in my high school of 2,800. I don’t remember knowing any of them. We invited one of them to play on our summer basketball team the summer before our senior year. We invited him because he was black. We were stereotyping. “He’s black, so he must be good at basketball.” He wasn’t. He was more of a football player than a basketball player. I never really did anything to connect with him. Again, there was that water fountain between us.
When I went to college, I made my first black “friends.” I put “friends” in quotation marks because it’s not like we hung out together. Yet we were friendly with one another. We bonded over our love of the same music, styles, and basketball, but that was about where our connection ended. Once again, in the back of my mind, there was that water fountain.
It is now 1982. I start teaching and coaching at a Catholic school in the NW suburbs of Chicago. I have my share of black students, and I start connecting with them like I do with all of my students. I am teaching them English, coaching basketball, football, and soccer. Many of them are on my teams. While I am trying to teach them about nouns and verbs, Shakespeare, and jump shots, they are teaching me about their lives and their culture.
Then 10 years into my teaching and coaching career, the Rodney King beating happens. The next year when the police are acquitted of the charges, LA explodes in riots. Other cities join in. We have a spring league basketball game in Chicago that kids on my team are playing in on that very night. I walk into a gym that is 75% black, and I wonder, “Are we going to be all right in here?”
During the game before ours, a white kid fouls a black kid hard, and I hear a couple of black kids in the bleachers jokingly yell out, “Rodney King!” Yet, I wonder how much they are actually joking.
The next day in class, I initiate a discussion about race relations and all that is going on in the world right now. I have a great relationship with many of the black kids in my classes, and they start to talk about their lives. They get real with us, open our eyes to things that I can’t believe that any kid, let alone “my kids,” go through.
Police Interactions Unlike Any In My Life
The one that hits me the most is how often they or their family members have been pulled over by the police for nothing. They aren’t speeding, crossing lines wrong, illegal turns – NOTHING! I wonder if they aren’t exaggerating a bit, though.
The following fall, I am chaperoning the Homecoming dance at our school. Rumor has it that some kids from a neighboring public school might crash the dance or be in the parking lot looking for a fight. Based on the school they are from, they would most likely be white kids.
This rumor has made its way around the dance, so some of us chaperones keep monitoring the parking lot, as well as the building. A couple of policemen are there as the dance is closing down, so they can help be a presence in case those kids show up.
Bob, my best friend since I was five, has taught and coached with me at that school from the start of our careers. He is a wrestling coach. He and I walk out to the parking lot to try to offer some more eyes and authority if needed.
As cars are filing out of the parking lot, we notice one car pulled over by the police. As we make our way over there, we notice Derek, one of Bob’s wrestlers, talking with the officer. Derek is black. He is all of about 5′ 3″, but he is a tough kid. Derek doesn’t take crap from anyone.
We hear Derek’s voice rising as he is talking with the police officer. The other kids in the car are black, too – another one of Bob’s wrestlers and two of my basketball players. These are great kids, some of our favorites we have ever taught and coached.
Bob and I ask the police officer, “What’s going on?”
Derek immediately says, “Coach, these guys stopped us! They said they heard there might be trouble at the dance, so they stopped US.” Bob tells Derek to relax a minute and let’s hear what the police officer has to say.
The policeman says that they heard that there might be some trouble here with some kids from another school, and they are stopping cars to check to see who’s in them.
Derek again jumps in with, “You aren’t stopping cars! You stopped OUR car. You stopped us ’cause we’re black.”
The police officer gets agitated and says something like, “That’s not true.” As he says this, a car goes past and Derek says, “There they are! There’s the guys you’re looking for.”
He’s right. Bob and I don’t recognize the car or the kids in it, and I say, “I think he may be right, Officer. I don’t know those kids.”
Derek continues to want to say things, but Bob guides him away from the police officer, fearful that Derek will say something that will make things worse. I turn to the police officer and say, “You know, the kid has a point.”
The officer says, “No, he doesn’t. We weren’t stopping them ’cause their black.”
I say, “That may be. But you stopped one car out here, and it’s the one with black kids in it, so it kind of looks that way. Can you see how they might feel that way?”
He begrudgingly says, “Well, maybe. But that’s not why we stopped them. We didn’t know who we were looking for, and there’s was the first car we stopped.”
I say, “Yeah, but just think about how it looks to them.” He has a look on his face like it was the furthest thing from his mind to think that way.
Finally, he says, “All right. Sorry for the misunderstanding.”
I say, “Thanks, but I think you’re apologizing to the wrong person.”
He just turns and walks back to his squad car with the other officer. They get in and ride away.
When Are We Going to Learn?
That incident stayed with me ever since then, and it is in moments like we are facing right now when it and many others come back to me. In that moment, I saw firsthand what my students had been telling me about in class that day the previous spring. I saw firsthand what I have heard for years about the young, black, male experience in white America.
And here I sit in June of 2020, and things are no different than they were in October of 1992.
I spoke with Bob on the phone the other day, and we both said, “You would have thought that people would have learned by now. How can we still be in the same place we were when we were kids, when we were in college, when we first started teaching?”
Didn’t Martin Luther King’s words and his vision mean anything?
It appears not.
Didn’t we learn from the horrible images and pictures from the south during the Civil Rights Movement?
It appears not.
Didn’t we learn from the last 50 years?
It appears not.
Didn’t we learn from Rodney King?
It appears not.
Didn’t we learn from Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, and all the rest?
It appears not.
Is George Floyd the next in a long line of the same old, same old?
I sure hope that “It appears not” won’t be the answer.
(Unfortunately between the first draft of this post and this revision of it, we have had another one. Two days ago Rayshard Brooks was killed by a police officer in Atlanta, again in a situation that didn’t have to end the way it did. I fear that “It appears not,” is still the answer to the questions above.)
Enough is Enough
Yet as I sit here today, knowing the way the country and the world are coming together to protest these incidents, things feel different than they did in years past. People of all colors, races, religions, countries, and any other way you can group them are coming together in the streets, on TV, and on online to say “Enough.”
While I don’t condone the violence, looting, shooting, burning, and all the other bad things happening, I understand it. We didn’t learn from all of the other moments in the past, and people are fed up with it. It’s time for a change. And sometimes the only way the rest of us will wake up and realize how bad things are is when people resort to more extreme measures of protest.
Again, I do not agree with those methods of protesting, but I understand why it happens. But now is the time to stop the violence and start the change. Now is the time talk about real solutions.
But talking isn’t enough anymore. It’s time for action. The action we have seen over the last two weeks is not the kind that will sustain anything positive, though. Now we must move forward and start building bonds and communities and connections with one another.
Listen . . .
Part of our action has to be for those of us on the white side of the equation to shut up and listen. We need to stop telling others how things should be and start listening to others as to how things should be.
I’m at fault as much as anyone. While I taught and coached my black students and athletes and have had some black friends, I don’t know their experience like I should. Apart from what my students/athletes told me, what I see on television and in the media, and what my few black friends might say, I don’t understand their experience.
The only way for me to do so is to shut up and listen. But for me to be able to do that, I need them to talk. I need them to answer questions that I and many others like me have. But we need to ask those questions, they need to answer, and then WE NEED TO LISTEN TO EACH OTHER.
. . . then Act
But it doesn’t end there. Once we have listened, we need to act. We need to move forward in a positive fashion – together. United as one.
We need to put aside our differences. I’m not saying we can’t be different. We’re going to be different. That’s okay. But we need to embrace our differences, figure out how our differences can inform each other and help each other, and then work to understand each other better.
It’s no different than what we do on our teams in sports. I don’t care what color you are, where you come from, who your parents are, what your political views are, what your religion is. I just care that we all come together and work to become the best we can be.
Wouldn’t that be a great first step to try to follow in our communities? Wouldn’t it be great if we all looked at all of us as being on the same team?
And while that probably isn’t going to happen, the concept of it is something to shoot for – except for one part of what I described above.
Tell Me Your Story
My line that said, “I don’t care what color you are, where you come from, who your parents are, what your political views are, what your religion is,” is wrong.
We have too many statements and mantras in our lives that start with the words, “I don’t care.” And while my sentiment in that statement was that no matter who you are, you are welcome on my team, I need to stop saying it the way I do.
I should care what color you are because that is a huge part of your identity, and I shouldn’t strip that away from you. I want you to tell me about it.
I should care where you come from because that is your home and your heritage, and it had a huge effect on shaping you. I want you to tell me about it.
I should care who your parents are because they brought you into this world and your view of life was influenced and affected in a big way by them, whether they were physically in your life or not. I want you to tell me about it.
I should care about what your political views are because they will inform me a whole lot about what you stand for, believe in, care about, and act on. I want you to tell me about it.
I should care about what your religion is because, again, that has had a huge effect on who you are, what you believe, and how you live your life. Even if your religion and mine are different, I should care about it. In fact, precisely because they are different, I should care about it. I want you to tell me about it.
Standing at a Crossroads
We are at a crossroads unlike any other that I can think of in my 59 years of life. And yet, as I type that, I think, “That’s not true, Scott. We have stood at this exact same crossroads for all of the 59 years of my life. We just haven’t made the right decisions about which way to go.”
It’s not that the crossroads is unlike any other in the past. It’s that the decisions we make now need to be unlike any other in the past. That is our only hope of ever moving forward.
It is interesting to note that 57 years after Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, his words are eerily fitting for what’s going on right now, and they continue to be a needed rallying cry for all of us to keep on fighting this important fight:
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
“1963 is not an end, but a beginning.” Yet here we are, 57 years later, and we are still in this fight.
How much longer will we have to keep this up?
When are we as a nation going to finally realize that EVERYONE deserves to be treated equally?
When will the principles and values that our country was founded on be extended to ALL of the people who live here?
Time’s up, America. Start living by the ideals we claim that everyone here has the same right to as everyone else.
Enough is enough. The time is NOW!